Politician who talked with the Taliban returns to head Uzbek Foreign Ministry

The return of Abdulaziz Kamilov, a veteran of Uzbek foreign intelligence and diplomacy, to the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs, is certainly linked to the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. He faces the task of preparing his country for new and close contact with the Taliban.

Abdulaziz Kamilov, 64, is a close political ally of President Islam Karimov, who has moved him around from post to government post for reasons and motives known only to the President himself. But he is nevertheless a highly valued colleague with a distinguished record and one who has played a significant role in government.

Possessing an intellect rare among Uzbekistan’s governing politicians these days, Kamilov’s name is bound up with the Foreign Ministry’s reputation for civilized and transparent dealings in the past, and the President will rely upon him to carry out a particular set of tasks.

The time when Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt obliged to hector and intimidate foreign partners – this responsibility fell to Sadyk Safaev and even more to Vladimir Norov after the Andijan events in 2005 – has certainly passed.

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Uzbekistan is preparing for a new order in Central Asia and the world and is bringing back politicians who are capable of working and living under these very different conditions.

Karimov is already starting to sound worried about the year 2014. Speaking in Tashkent on 13th January during 20th anniversary celebrations for Uzbekistan’s independent armed forces, he said:

“The announced withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan in 2014 may lead to an increased threat of terrorism and extremism, and escalate tensions and hostilities in this vast region, which could become a permanent source of instability.”

Islam Karimov remembers very clearly the terrorist acts carried out in the US on 11th September 2001, when Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan was a source of constant worry for his government. The Talib who had sized power in Afghanistan had received with open arms hundreds of active members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IDU) and allowed them to settle in the north of the country.

The Taliban’s leaders talked openly of their plans to enter Uzbekistan, and to do away with the government of ‘faithless’ Islam Karimov. In 1999 and 2000, the IDU took part in lengthy military stand-offs with Uzbek and Kyrgyz soldiers in both countries.

Unable to ignore what was going on next door, Karimov decided to enter into talks with the Taliban. At the beginning of 2001, he even talked of the possibility of recognising the Taliban government, maintaining an open border with Afghanistan, and mutual trade.

It was Abdulaziz Kamilov, Foreign Minister at the time, who went to pass this message on to the Taliban on Karimov’s behalf.

In early 2001, Kamilov went to Pakistan where he met with the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Kamilov talked about this at a press conference when he returned to Tashkent. Kamilov assured Mullah Omar of Uzbekistan’s cooperation and neighbourliness in exchange for expulsion of the IDU from Afghanistan.

However, according to Kamilov, the Talib rejected this proposal, claiming their eastern tradition of hospitality did not allow them to behave this way towards Uzbek Islamists.
Afghanistan after the US has left

In 2014 the US will leave Afghanistan in a more unstable condition than when they arrived in 2001. The dual (if not multiple) power structure which may establish itself in Afghanistan in two years’ time –the government of Hamid Karzai is only just managing to retain control over the capital Kabul – represents the primary source of danger for this country.

Eleven years ago Karimov claimed, justifiably, that the Taliban were the real power brokers in Afghanistan, controlling more than 80% of the country’s territory, and that Uzbekistan had no alternative but to recognize this fact.

Today, the fact that the Talib are going to play a leading, if not a fundamental role in the construction of the new Afghanistan is not in question. The fact is even accepted by the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US Vice-President Joe Biden recently announced that in Afghanistan, the Americans are not waging war with the Taliban, a statement which gave rise to a barrage of questions and vilification.

But Biden’s comments ought to be acknowledged, since all those who have dealings with Afghanistan will surely come into contact with the Taliban.

Islam Karimov, who presides over a border with Afghanistan, will be among the first to come to an understanding with the Taliban. One cannot choose one’s neighbours, and it is only a matter of time before the IDU is reborn from this new order.

Will Abdulaziz be able to handle this responsibility? It is perfectly possible that Mullah Omar will say ‘no’ to him again, but Karimov could have selected no better negotiator for the task.